Lawsuit shows growth in surveillance-based police stops, advocates say
A screenshot from the crime camera footage that led to Michael Celestine’s stop and arrest on Jan. 13, 2020. (Credit: New Orleans Police Department)
NEW ORLEANS – Twenty-five year old Michael Celestine walked outside his friend’s 7th Ward home to take a phone call and smoke a cigarette. Wearing a Tommy Hillfiger puffer jacket on a brisk day in January 2020, he chatted with a friend, walked across the street and then went back inside.
What Celestine didn’t know that is that for the full 15 minutes he was outside, he was being watched by a New Orleans police officer on a monitor about a mile away at the city’s surveillance hub, the Real Time Crime Center, which has access to more than 1,200 live feeds from cameras across the city.
Celestine was the subject of live video surveillance that landed him in jail for more than a year — in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit New Orleans early and hard just two months after he was arrested — even though all the charges against him were eventually dropped. In 2021, Celestine sued the NOPD with the help of the ACLU of Louisiana for a litany of alleged abuses, including an unlawful stop, false arrest and excessive force. Celestine and the NOPD agreed to a $10,000 settlement last year.
“It’s very egregious,” ACLU of Louisiana staff attorney Meghan Matt told Verite. “It’s a man literally minding his own business outside … and subsequently spends a year in jail on false charges during the height of COVID when hundreds of people in that jail were infected, and people were literally dropping dead.”
When the city’s camera network was first introduced in 2017, officials assured the public that the system was primarily there to gather evidence after a crime occurs, rather than proactively surveil the public for suspicious activity.
But in recent years, the NOPD has increased its use of live surveillance to justify stops and searches, according to local defense attorneys and advocates.
“We’ve seen over the years the increased use of the real-time crime cameras to lead to stop and frisks,” New Orleans Chief Public Defender Danny Engelberg told Verite.
Civil rights advocates say that trend is concerning, escalates the privacy implications of the city’s ever expanding surveillance apparatus and threatens to amplify the worst tendencies of the criminal justice system.
On the day of Celestine’s arrest, NOPD officers on the street were conducting what the police report described as a “proactive patrol in high crime areas” while another, Daniel Grijalva, was monitoring a surveillance feed from a nearby camera in the neighborhood. The camera shifted to follow Celestine’s movements, zooming in to provide a close visual inspection of his clothing and cellphone. Grijalva saw a “bulge” in the puffer jacket, and notified nearby patrols that he believed Celestine had a gun, according to the police report and the lawsuit. Officers did not initially respond while Celestine was in the home.
Grijalva was still watching when Celestine left the house again two hours later, and again called for nearby officers to respond. Justified only by a perceived “bulge” in video surveillance, two NOPD squad cars approached Celestine. He ran away before the officers could say a word. Officer Bryan Bissell chased him on foot into a backyard and pulled out his gun.
“I will f—ing shoot you,” the officer said, body camera footage obtained by Verite shows.
Celestine then hoisted himself halfway over a fence before Bissell shot him with a stun gun. Celestine fell to the ground wailing in pain. As he was being arrested, he told the officers “I can’t breathe.”
“Shut up,” Bissell responded.
After briefly being admitted to the hospital, Celestine was taken to jail on Jan. 13, 2020 on several charges, including possession of a stolen weapon, which officers said they found in his pant leg. The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office later dropped all charges against him, but not until January 2021. Celestine was kept in jail for the entire year because he was on parole from a previous conviction and was put on a “parole hold” that prevented him from posting bail.
“The damage that can happen to a person’s life and livelihood by spending a year in jail without conviction is almost indescribable,” Chris Kaiser, advocacy director of the ACLU of Louisiana, told Verite. Verite was unable to reach Celestine for comment.
Matt, who previously worked as a staff attorney for the Orleans Public Defenders office, said all of the abuses suffered by Celestine stemmed from an initial live video surveillance stakeout — a practice she said is becoming more prevalent in New Orleans.
“As a former public defender, I can tell you this was all the time,” Matt said. “It’s happening multiple times a day, every single day.”
Neither the NOPD nor Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office responded to requests for comment.
From ‘complaint-based’ system to proactive surveillance
Since the city’s crime camera network launched in 2017 under then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu, city officials have told the public that the system would be largely “complaint-based,” meaning that the footage would primarily be used to gather evidence after an alleged crime was called in.
But it quickly became clear that the cameras were also being used to proactively search live footage for potential suspicious activity.
In 2018, The Lens reported on the case of Clint Carter, who was arrested during a drug bust coordinated through live video surveillance. The cameras caught an interaction that an NOPD officer interpreted to be a drug deal. Carter was swarmed by NOPD squad cars and arrested.
No drugs were recovered from the scene, but the police said they found brass knuckles on him. And one officer claimed that Carter, who was taken for medical treatment after his arrest, tried to take a swing at him from his hospital bed. (The officer later admitted that Carter was shackled to the bed more than five feet away from him.)
Carter was booked with illegally carrying a weapon, simple assault and trespassing — the last charge allegedly stemming from a neighbor’s complaint, though, according to a report by The Lens, video footage did not show Carter entering the property in question.
In November 2018, about four months after the arrest, a judge found Carter not guilty of all charges. But Carter still ended up in prison because the arrest was considered a violation of his parole.
Many criminal justice and privacy advocates object to the city’s crime camera apparatus altogether, saying that it has inadequate guardrails, that the multimillion-dollar investment hasn’t actually helped reduce crime and that it violates people’s privacy. City officials have repeatedly argued that because the cameras are placed on public rights-of-way, the cameras do not present a privacy concern.
“This isn’t making us safer,” Marvin Arnold, an organizer with the privacy advocacy group Eye on Surveillance, told Verite.
But the cases of Celestine and Carter speak to another objection some advocates have to escalating police surveillance — that powerful tools that amplify the police power also amplify the misconduct, abuse and bias in the American criminal justice system.
Kaiser said that while the arrest of Celestine began with invasive surveillance, every other abuse he experienced are issues that have long plagued major police departments: excessive force, racial profiling (Celestine is a Black man), officers lying to justify use of force, unconstitutional stops and the NOPD’s failure to follow its own policies.
“This implicates surveillance technology,” Kaiser said. “But from another angle, this really does boil down to more old-fashioned police misconduct.”
Matt said that the more live surveillance is used, the more opportunity there is for misconduct.
“This happens constantly, and it’s going to be happening more and more the more surveillance is used,” she said.
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New technology amplifies old problems
In some respects, what happened to Celestine is not a new phenomenon in American policing. The officers were conducting an “investigatory stop” based on reasonable suspicion that he was involved in criminal activity — commonly known as a Terry stop.
Terry stops — named after the 1968 Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio — have long been a hallmark of American policing, as well as a constant source of allegations of misconduct and profiling. Terry stops have been found to be constitutional, but the legal standard for them is lower and more ambiguous than for an arrest, which requires probable cause, or evidence of a crime.
To conduct a Terry stop, an officer must have only “reasonable suspicion” that a person may be committing a crime. According to Supreme Court rulings and NOPD policy, reasonable suspicion needs to be founded on “specific, objective, articulable facts,” and not simply on an officer’s intuition.
But Matt said that Terry stops are often performed based on officer hunches or biased policing, and that officers find ways to justify them later.
“Black people, especially in New Orleans, are stopped for virtually everything,” Matt said. “And then charges are created to justify their racial profiling.”
The NOPD has a troubled history with racial profiling and the unconstitutional use of Terry stops. The department entered into a consent decree with the federal government in 2013 after a Department of Justice investigation found a laundry list of unconstitutional practices, including racially biased policing and a pattern of unlawful stops, searches and arrests. The report found that many officers “displayed a profound lack of understanding of the limits” of Terry stops.
Even since it entered the consent decree, the NOPD has faced criticism for disproportionately stopping and searching Black people. According to a department database, officers have conducted more than 270,000 stops since the beginning of 2016. Black people, who account for about 58% of the city’s residents, were the subjects of 71% of those stops.
When you're a white person, you're supposed to stand your ground, and when you're a Black person you're a bad person with a bulge in your pants.
– Marvin Arnold, Eye of Surveillance
While questionable stops are not new, Celestine’s was notable because it was justified by using live camera surveillance. Arnold said that increased live surveillance will increase the chance for improper stops.
“Live surveillance is just introducing more opportunities for government to overstep in our lives,” Arnold said.
With surveillance technology, Terry stops are no longer constrained by the need to have an actual officer on the scene. The number of live camera feeds the city has access to now exceeds the number of NOPD officers, and continues to grow every year. (The city can view live footage from more than 500 city-owned cameras and more than 700 privately owned cameras that grant the city access to their live feeds through the city’s Safecam Platinum program.)
Those cameras, unlike officers, are watching and recording 24 hours a day with superhuman vision and memory. And they are backed by powerful software that can search through hours of footage instantaneously to find specific people, personal characteristics, vehicles and travel routes. New software emerges every day to increase the power of crime cameras, like algorithms that can automatically read lips.
“We’re now subjecting more moments in our lives to being under higher scrutiny,” Arnold said. “Instead of cameras just passively waiting for moments to come up, we’re actively looking for them. The more you look, the more you’re going to find. So I think it’s heightening the general public’s exposure.”
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‘There’s going to be bias’
Kaiser said that Celestine’s case is “a perfect example” of what can go wrong during a Terry stop.
“Every time the police department or other city officials want to introduce more cameras … officials always insist that we shouldn’t be concerned about civil liberties risks because NOPD is highly trained, we have all these policies, we are governed by a federal consent decree and there are adequate guardrails,” Kaiser said. “But a case like this shows that none of that is true.
“We’re seeing that even with training, even with policies, even with the federal consent decree, officers are using the technology and tools that are given to them to unlawfully profile individuals and communities of color.”
The problems with Celestine’s arrest began with the original justification for the stop — the bulge in Celestine’s jacket pocket.
“There is nothing suspicious about a person having his hand in the pocket of a winter jacket on a cold winter day,” Celestine’s lawsuit said. “Nor does the surveillance, which formed the basis for Mr. Celestine’s apprehension, show Mr. Celestine engaging in any criminal or otherwise suspicious behavior.”
Even if the bulge did indicate he had a gun, Arnold noted that Louisiana law allows people to carry a concealed weapon with a permit, and that the NOPD had no information to indicate Celestine didn’t have one.
“When you’re a white person, you’re supposed to stand your ground, and when you’re a Black person you’re a bad person with a bulge in your pants,” Arnold said. “When there’s humans involved, there’s going to be bias.”
Engelberg, the attorney with the Orleans Public Defenders, said there’s an open legal question as to whether simply being in the possession of the gun in a city that allows concealed carry is justification for reasonable suspicion.
“There’s a real question as to that,” Engelberg said. “If there’s a legal alternative to what someone thinks might be a crime, they have to do more before they stop you. They might have a concealed carry permit. Or that bulge might just be a wallet. You have to do more before you initiate a stop.”
Another problem with Celestine’s arrest is that it appears that one of the arresting officers lied to a superior about his justification for chasing him, shocking him with a conducted electrical weapon and arresting him.
“When we pulled up to him he had his hand in his pocket and wouldn’t take it out,” Bissell told another officer at the scene. “I told him to take his hand out and he took off running.”
But that never happened, according to body camera footage obtained by Verite. The video shows that the officers and Celestine didn’t exchange a single word before Celestine took off.
The lawsuit also claims that Celestine running away didn’t justify a chase and arrest for resisting an officer. It claimed that because the NOPD didn’t have sufficient justification to stop Celestine in the first place, and because the officers never told him he was being detained, that running away didn’t justify an arrest for “resisting an officer.”
The lawsuit said the NOPD continued to act improperly and used excessive force after chasing Celestine. It claims that because Celestine didn’t appear as a threat, Officer Bissell had no justification to pull out his gun and say, “I will f—ing shoot you.”
Nor did he have justification to use a stun gun on Celestine, the lawsuit said. It points out that under NOPD policy, officers should use stun guns “only when such force is necessary to protect the officer, the subject, or another party from physical harm, and other less intrusive means would be ineffective” and “when attempts to subdue the suspect by other tactics have been, or will likely be, ineffective.”
Under the consent decree, officers aren’t supposed to use stun guns when it could “cause serious injury or death from situational hazards, including falling.” Celestine fell about six feet from the top of the fence when he was shocked.
The ACLU of Louisiana lawsuit takes further issue with how Celestine was treated in the aftermath of being stunned. Although he complained he couldn’t stand up and said he couldn’t breathe, the officers told him to “shut up” and forced him to stand up and keep walking. Celestine had to complain for 20 minutes before the officers called for an ambulance.
Celestine was admitted to the hospital for three hours with shortness of breath and a rapid heartbeat, according to the lawsuit, which said the officers displayed “deliberate indifference to Mr. Celestine’s serious medical needs.”
Finally, there is the issue of the amount of time Celestine spent in jail. He was locked up for more than a year even though he was never convicted of any crime, presumed innocent and all charges against him were eventually dropped. Matt said that this can be a major problem with Terry stops — that a single interaction with law enforcement can be life changing for someone like Celestine or Carter.
“I saw these types of police reports, weekly,” Matt said. “Someone literally standing outside their house or on a street corner next to their car, and they’re stopped for reasons unknown, and subsequently end up with some bogus charges in jail. Then they can’t pay bail, or for whatever reason get caught up in the system. Maybe they’re on probation or parole or are forced to take a plea.”
Engelberg said that the effects of someone like Celestine going to jail can have reverberating effects not only for himself, but for his family and the community at large.
“It doesn’t just have an impact on that person’s life, but the effects on their family, on the people that rely on them” he said. “It’s really a stressor not only to the individual but in a broader sense to the family and community that I frankly think makes us less of a healthy place, less of a safe place.”
And so as surveillance increasingly augments the power of the police to watch residents, advocates and attorneys worry that it will lead to more abuses, more misconduct and more people stuck in jail who shouldn’t be there.
“Technology is a piece of this,” Kaiser said. “But the underlying issue is that NOPD continues to demonstrate that they can’t be trusted to implement and operationalize these technologies.”
This article first appeared on Verite and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.
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